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Will the White House disappoint on H-1B displacements?

Patrick Thibodeau | July 20, 2015
A top White House official told House lawmakers this week that the replacement of U.S. workers by H-1B visa holders is troubling and not supposed to happen. But it is hard to tell whether the administration will do anything about it. The signals are mixed.

The U.S. Department of Labor, in a letter to senators in April about the situation at Edison, explained that "even (H-1B) dependent employers and willful violators are not prohibited from displacing U.S. workers" provided they agree to pay at least $60,000 per year for the worker, or the foreign worker has a relevant master's degree. (A large H-1B employer can earn the dependent designation if H-1B workers make up 15 percent or more of their workforce.)

If the White House concludes its investigations into Edison and Disney by telling lawmakers that the law needs to be changed before it can do anything, a new problem arises.

Any H-1B-related legislation to stop displacement will likely be coupled with an H-1B cap increase. The tech industry will also lobby hard to ensure that any changes to the law are ineffective and filled with as many loopholes as possible.

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University who has testified before Congress multiple times on H-1B visa use, believes the White House has the authority under the law as it now stands to make changes. He said Johnson's acknowledgement of the problem was a good first step.

"The intent of the H-1B program is very clear: It should only be used to fill positions when American workers are not available," said Hira, but "some in the administration have tried to hide behind the bizarre interpretation that H-1Bs can be used to displace American workers. ... There's an explicit affirmation in the statute that H-1Bs should not be used to harm American workers' wages and working conditions."

The Disney and Edison cases "make it plainly obvious that the leading H-1B employers are using the program to replace American workers and for wage savings from cheaper H-1B workers. It is time for the Obama Administration to act on principle and law to correct the widespread injustices," said Hira.

At worst, said Hira, "there's a conflict between the displacement interpretation and the legal, and common-sense, intent of the program. The administration has authority to select the interpretation that is sensible rather than the one with tortured logic."

Hira said the only reason Secretary Johnson was asked at this hearing about this issue "is because of the courageous Disney and Southern California Edison workers who were willing to tell their stories to journalists."

"It is time for more workers to come forward, anonymously, so that the American public sees the extent of the abuse, and to force the hand of politicians like Secretary Johnson to act," said Hira, who urged affected workers to contact him.


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